When fate had dealt its cruel hand by taking her mother years ago, Mona Whitson had become the lady of the house. It was just her and her father, and their family was poor.
Despite feeling a little under the weather, Mona got up at the crack of dawn, took up her bucket and fetched bath water for herself and her father. Mona washed up quickly in the outhouse, dressed in her usual worn yet still colorful clothes and set about making breakfast in their tiny kitchen.
Her options were the loaf of stale bread she had purchased the previous evening – at a reduced price from the bakery in town – and a single, sad-looking egg that their only hen had managed to lay.
“We will just have to make do,” Mona mumbled under her breath. It wasn’t the first time she’d say those words, and it wouldn’t be the last. She had a house to tend, a father to care for and a livelihood to maintain. Sadly, though, the house was little more than a leaky shack, her father was a strict and bitter man, and her livelihood could not sufficiently see to her needs. A small part of her was glad that her mother was no longer able to see what had become of her beloved family after her passing.
Mona could not eat until her father had taken his seat at the head of their rustic table. So, when she was done with the preparations, she set the table with two plates; each one with half an omelet she had managed to put together with some milk, and one half of the loaf of stale bread. Then, she took her seat and waited for her father to come and eat.
To do otherwise would be impolite and he’d scold her for it – that was the way things were done in the Whitson household. What did it matter how hungry she was?
But this morning, Mona was tempted to incur her father’s wrath. She was just so hungry. The meager breakfast seemed to beckon to her, but she folded her hands in her lap and tried to be patient. It wouldn’t be a good thing for her to go into the Birchfield’s shop with the imprint of her father’s hand on her face. She could just imagine the look on people’s faces and how they would stare. Some would ask questions, or worse, they would ignore it. It always hurt worse to be ignored…
Her father’s footsteps drew her from her miserable thoughts and Mona managed a smile for him. Her father was a bearded and rugged man but Mona liked to think he had kind eyes. Her eyes. They exchanged the usual morning pleasantries and he blessed the meal.
Mona wanted to avoid an uncomfortable silence, so she opted for a light conversation. “Mrs. Baker stormed into the shop around noon yesterday, dragging little Timmy and his shaggy brown mutt along with her,” she said. “She started raisin’ her voice an’ yelling all ‘bout how the little rascal kept tearing up her curtains and leaving stains on her floors. Then, she told Mr. Birchfield to ‘skin him!’
“Mr. Birchfield started telling her that he wouldn’t be skinnin’ any mutts for her, it didn’t matter if she was his sister, and Mrs. Bakercut him off, impatient-like, ‘I’m not talkin’ ‘bout the dog, Gerald,’ she said. ‘I’m talkin’ ‘bout the boy!’”
“Poor Timmy!” Mona laughed as she went on, “He ran out of there as fast as he could!”
“Stop talkin’ with food in your mouth, girl!” Mona’s father thundered suddenly. “You are not a savage.”
At once, Mona sobered up. “Yes, Father.”
“And come straight home soon as you leave that shop, you hear me? My clothes need washing and mending.” All of her previous humor dissolved into thin air. Still, Mona kept a pleasant smile on her face.
“Of course, Father,” she said dutifully once again.
Her father wasn’t a bad man, Mona kept telling herself, he was just strict. But no matter how many times she told herself those words, her smile was always too tight on her face. And she was nervous around him. He hadn’t been this bad when her mother was alive.
Lately, Mona had begun to feel as if she was walking on eggshells around him, and that was because she was hiding a secret. So far, she’d been lucky. Her father didn’t know about her and Nolan. Not yet… Her father wouldn’t take kindly to her having an affair with a man – much less, the local outlaw.
Mona remained silent throughout the rest of the meal. But when it was time for her to leave, she did it happily, heaving a sigh of relief. That was the power of a single step out the door; it made her feel like a bird that was finally out of its little cage. Even if it was only for a few hours…
It was just another day in the Birchfield’s butcher shop.
Mona, will you please take this delivery up to Abigail? You know how she hates to come down to the shop,” Mrs. Birchfield said.
“Yes, Mrs. Birchfield,” she replied instantly. Mona stood up from where she’d been cleaning the floor, and, for an instant, all the blood rushed to her head. She felt dizzy.
“Mama, I’ll go to Abigail’s,” Mary, Mrs. Birchfield’s daughter and her best friend, volunteered hastily. She took the parcel of freshly cut meat out of her mother’s hands as she explained, “Mona isn’t feeling well today.”
And then, she was off. From personal experience of how Mrs. Birchfield liked to fuss, Mary knew better than to stick around for her mother’s reaction to her announcement.
“Oh dear!” Mrs. Birchfield stared at Mona with concern shining bright in her eyes. “Why didn’t you say anythin’, you poor lamb?”
Mona shrugged, offering Mrs. Birchfield a weak smile. It was all she could manage.
“See now, you’re all clammy. Bless your heart,” she tutted. “Why did you come to the shop if you were ill?”
Mrs. Birchfield took the wet rag out of Mona’s hands and forced her into a chair – the only chair in the butcher shop, which was nearly as tattered as the rag. Then, she continued to fuss. Or scold. It was all the same with Mrs. Birchfield.
Despite being someone who took it upon herself to always be cheerful, there were times when the words got stuck in Mona’s throat, and this was one of them. Mrs. Birchfield’s fussing made her miss her mother, and she felt dangerously close to bursting into tears. Mrs. Birchfield must have sensed it too, because suddenly, she gave her a hug.
The Birchfields were only a little better off than Mona’s family, in respect to their finances. They didn’t need her around the shop any more than they could afford to pay her for it, but Mona was Mary’s closest friend and that counted for something. The Birchfields were poor, but what they lacked in finances they countered with an abundance of love and good spirits. They had little to give, but were some They had love. Loads and lots of it, to the point where they’d even managed to spare some for Mona.
“There’ll be no more bending for you until you’re feelin’ better, dear,” Mrs. Birchfield said, and Mona’s belly rumbled in response. The older woman pierced her with a steady gaze. “Tell me, Mona, have you eaten today?”
Mona told her about the half omelet and the stale bread. “I think the egg might have gone bad,” she confided, and by the time Mary returned from her errand, Mona was polishing off a bowl of mutton stew and one of Mrs. Birchfield’s yeast rolls. She knew that the generosity had cost Mrs. Birchfield, but Mona was too hungry to dwell on embarrassment.
Mary’s long brown hair was windblown when she entered the store again and there was a spark of annoyance in her friend’s eyes that set Mona’s senses on alert.
“Is everything alright, Mary?” Mona asked.
“Everything is fine,” her friend said. Then, she continued reluctantly. “It’s just…I saw Brent on my way to Abigail’s,” Mary began.
Oh no, Mona thought. Not again…
“He had the gall to ask me for a kiss,” Mary said with a deep anger that was not unexpected, considering the man in question. “Once again, I had to tell him that he’d have better luck with my cousin Timmy’s mutt. The moron laughed.”
“That’s just how he is, Mary,” Mona said dismissively, setting aside her empty bowl. “You know that.” She forced a bright smile. “How is Abigail?”
But Mary would not be deterred so easily. “He didn’t even mind that Josie from the saloon was hanging on his arm! He was so disrespectful! And that’s not even the worst of it.”
Mona sighed. Usually, Mary saw goodness in everybody, no matter what. It was an uncommon sight to see her like this. But Brent Kevly had a certain gift for setting anybody off – even the gentlest and mild-mannered person that ever walked the earth – especially if that person happened to be a woman.
“He is disrespectful to everybody, Mary,” Mona pointed out weakly.
“But not to me, Mona. Not like this. He barely even noticed me ‘fore you started goin’ out with his brother.”
Mona nodded in understanding. “I’ll speak to Nolan ‘bout it. If anybody can talk sense into Brent, it’s him.”
There was a certain shift in Mary’s eyes as soon as Nolan’s name fell from her lips, and Mona wanted to tell herself that she’d only imagined it. But this was Mary; Mona didn’t like keeping secrets from her best friend, and it didn’t sit better with her when it was her best friend doing the keeping. “What’s wrong?”
“Nolan was there too, you see,” Mary said reluctantly. “He was standing right beside Brent the whole time, an’ he laughed too.”
Mona was stunned for a moment, but it passed quickly. “Surely he didn’t mean it.”
“I’m sure he did, Mona…” Mary drew closer and placed a hand on her shoulder. “What are you doin’ with Nolan McKelvy? He doesn’t deserve you, an’ I know you could have so much better than him.”
“He loves me,” Mona replied at once. “He said so an’ I believe him.”
Mary gave her a worried look. “I don’t want to upset you, Mona, but Nolan says and does very different things when you’re not with him.”
But Mona didn’t say anything, and soon, Mary had to drop the subject. Mona continued feeling out of sorts as the day passed on. Although she blamed it on her breakfast, her mind kept wandering and anxiety twisted her up in knots. It suddenly hit her in the evening, when she was getting ready to leave the Birchfield’s butcher shop.
“What is it, Mona?” Mary asked when her friend suddenly went white and stopped in her tracks.
Mona shook her head. The shock had stolen away all her words. Gently, Mary led her back into the shop, into a corner that hid them from prying eyes.
“What is it?” Her friend was really worried now.
“I’m late…the dizziness, the hunger…” Eyes wide, she stared up at Mary in shock. “I think I’m pregnant.”
Mary gaped at her in shock. “Is Nolan the…” she trailed off.
“Yes,” Mona swallowed, completely horrified. “He’s the father.”
If she was truly pregnant, then Nolan was the father. There had never been any other man. But Mona was far more disturbed about that, than she was about the possibility that she might be pregnant. Nolan McKelvy might be the man she loved, but he was also the local outlaw.
“I saw him beat a man bloody just last week, Mary. He didn’t stop even when the man stopped fighting back,” Mona said calmly. She was still stunned – but there was horror ravishing her mind; a horror that she’d never voiced before. “And I know he spends time with girls down at the saloon, even if you won’t tell me so. Brent told me. He also asked if I knew that Nolan used to slap them around.”
“I can’t imagine raising this baby with him, Mary. I can’t imagine raising a baby under my father’s roof either.”
“Oh, Mona…why do you bother with him?”
“‘Because I love him,” she sobbed. “And I want to believe that he loves me too.”
Mary stared at Mona with shimmering eyes and held her hands. “Of course, he does.” Mary nodded decidedly. “Everybody loves you, Mona.” It felt like a lie, but Mona was determined to believe it.
Mona didn’t go straight home as she was supposed to. Instead, she made her way to a small cottage in town that was her and Nolan’s secret place. She waited for him. When he finally strolled in, Mona’s heart skipped a beat. He looked handsome as ever with his tall, skinny build and perfect ginger hair. But she couldn’t forget that beaten man. Then there was the matter of the saloon girls, but she set it all aside.
“I want you to come home with me,” she said as soon as she gave him his kiss. “I want you to meet my father and ask him for my hand.”
“But I’m holding it right ‘ere, darlin’,” Nolan said with a charming wink. His hand felt warm around hers, however, she didn’t mean that and he knew it.
“I’m talking about marriage, Nolan. ‘Bout makin’ things official.” She gave him an imploring look. “I want you to live with me.”
He jerked his hand away and stared at her irritably.
“How could you ask me that?” The transformation was so swift that Mona was stunned. Today, it seemed, was a day for surprises.
He advanced towards her, and Mona started moving towards the back wall of the small cottage. “I’m a free spirit, Mona! Destined to roam the towns and do as I please! I won’t ever be tied down to Beaumont – or to a woman like you.” For an instant, he gazed at her with so much hate in his eyes, as if she was willingly robbing him of his freedom. Then, he stormed off without looking back.
It suddenly occurred to Mona that it might be a good idea to do the same. She could start a new life in someplace else, far away from Nolan and her father. She felt shocked that her lover had just abandoned her.
When she told Mary the next day, she didn’t think it was such a bad idea either.
“Your father will want nothing to do with you when he finds out about the baby, Mona. You know how he is. You should just leave Beaumont. Matter of fact, you should flee Louisiana entirely, and I have just the answer. Here, look!” She showed Mona a portion in the previous day’s newspapers.
“You want me to become a mail-order-bride? A mail-order bride to this…” Mona glanced down at the newspaper and read the name on the ad. “Forrest Neihart?”
“It’s the only way I can think of for you to be free,” Mary said. “You’ll leave Beaumont and go all the way to Texas…”
Though she was of two minds, Mona found herself scanning through the rest of the man’s details. He was a vet. She’d always liked animals. This was the sole common thing Mona suspected she had with the man. It had to be enough.
Mona shook her head at her friend. “This is crazy.”
But by the end of the day, they’d sent off a reply to the ad. It was all so strange for Mona that she thought the day to be a peculiar dream. But the realization of the dire situation she was in allowed for no time to be torn for what she had so swiftly lost. She had no time to grieve. When she returned home, Mona didn’t bother to wait. She packed up what little she owned and all her savings. Everything fit into a single bag.
It wasn’t even that she expected a favorable reply from the man, but anything was better than staying where she was in her condition, or so she thought. Before she could talk herself out of it, she proceeded to sneak out of the house.
She could have tried for the door, but her father was home and she didn’t want to risk him catching her. Mona slipped her bag out first, then she herself proceeded to climb out the window. As careful as she tried to be, she made a noise of surprise, when she had one leg out the window and realized that she’d misjudged the distance to the ground.
“Who’s there?” her father’s gruff voice called out. “Mona?”
She heard his quick footsteps as she launched herself out the window. She was close enough to the ground that she still managed to land on her feet, despite missing her footing. Mona didn’t bother to see if her father was coming, she just picked up her bag and ran away under the cover of the night.
When she finally made it to the train station, she did so with immense relief. But her heart didn’t stop pounding until she had boarded the passenger car and found her seat. The train would take her all the way to Texas, and she’d never have to return to her old life. A part of her was aware that they had only mailed the letter a few hours earlier. She would probably arrive to the address the man had stated before the mailman, but at that dark, desperate moment she had nothing left she could do. Mona was sad and terrified, but she had just a glimmer of hope that this crazy plan of hers might work, at least for the sake of her unborn child.
It was a warm morning, the kind that seemed like the beginning of great things. The birds were chirping, and the Texas sun was peeking out from behind the clouds. Fisher, the big German shepherd, was scratching outside his door. The dog was eager to start her day, and probably wished to go out for a run.
Forrest’s eyes remained resolutely closed. He was aware of his surroundings, but he didn’t stir. He was an early riser by nature, but these last few years, he’d been finding it harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. No matter how bright and cheerful the day was, for Forrest Neihart, there was always a shroud of gray around it.
He didn’t have anything to look forward to anymore, and what was worse, there were moments when he wasn’t inclined to be concerned about it.
Ever since he’d lost his wife, years ago, Forrest had slipped into a quiet state of mourning. Grief had stolen away the enthusiastic man that he used to be, and left a new man in his place.
Now, this new man may bear his name and walk around town with his face, but he was a shadow of his past self. Forrest no longer thought about himself, so he didn’t think much about his new behavior; that wasn’t the focus of his grief. He didn’t mourn his old self; it was Anna he mourned still. Losing her had made him quiet, but Forrest didn’t see how keeping quiet had ever hurt anyone when there was nothing left to say. The townsfolk of Odessa, however, felt differently.
They watched him with pity in their eyes, and an unending wealth of concern whenever they saw him coming; and he always found it uncomfortable.
Not only did they invite him to everything now, but at least a couple times a week, someone always managed to make too much pie and they’d bring some over to him.
It never seemed to matter to them that he could see through their lies, and their shamelessness didn’t end there. They were constantly trying to draw him into their conversations, whether or not he was in the mood to talk. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Forrest remembered when he’d tried to fire his housekeeper, back when Annabeth had just passed away. The elderly widow had dug in her heels and flat out refused to leave. Mrs. Tanner had hired herself right back, declaring that he wasn’t in a state of mind fit enough to do any firing. Then he’d been mad with grief.
Now, a few years later, Forrest still paid Mrs. Tanner her monthly wages, and it didn’t seem like she’d be leaving her job anytime soon. The only difference was, she now took some care to stay out of Forrest’s way when he was seriously unfit for company, except for when she did not.
“Come on now, girl,” he heard her say outside his door. She was speaking to Fisher. “Let’s give your master a chance to wake up on his own.” A little louder, she added, “I have breakfast ready, Mr. Niehart. It’s your favorite.”
Forrest didn’t reply, and he heard Mrs. Tanner’s footsteps retreating as she led Fisher away. Mrs. Tanner had become used to his silence. It was worse in the mornings, but Forrest didn’t mind. In fact, he liked to think that it was the silence which kept him sane through this difficult time in his life – the silence and his sense of duty to the citizens of Odessa, Texas.
The townsfolk relied heavily on Forrest’s medical expertise, because he was the only local veterinarian. Going to work and caring for those animals in need gave him a reason to get up every day, even when he didn’t feel up to it. It was the only thing that kept him going, so he did his best.
To ease away some of his loneliness, Forrest had started bringing home some of the animals he worked with again, just until he could find them suitable owners. But somehow, Fisher had managed to stick around till she became his own.
He and Annabeth had had two dogs, but both of them had passed away shortly after her demise. He knew in his mind that Benny and Dodo had been old by that time, and it was nothing short of a miracle that they’d survived as long as they had. But in his heart, Forrest knew that the two rascals had missed Annabeth so much that they’d died of broken hearts. Now, it was just him…well, him and Fisher.
Eventually, Forrest made it out of his bed. He cleaned himself and went downstairs to have breakfast. He found Mrs. Tanner cleaning the room – or pretending to, to disguise the fact that she’d been waiting on him – but she dropped her broom as soon as she saw him. She scanned him over, before she sat down to eat.
“Did I tell you ‘bout the two dollar increase in the price of sugar, Mr. Neihart?”
“I’m sure you did,” Forrest said, rubbing his still-tender chin absently as he took his seat at the table. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of a beard left on his chin. He did it deliberately, much the same way he took care to dress properly whenever he was going to work.
After Annabeth passed away, the grief had driven Forrest wild. He hadn’t been able to eat, sleep or function for several days afterwards. So, it was only at Mrs. Tanner’s insistence that he had managed to feed himself. But there were some things that even she hadn’t been able to force him to do. One of them was shaving his beard.
In the months that followed Annabeth’s death, Forrest had neglected his appearance, and grown a messy beard. He hadn’t groomed it for the longest time, perhaps in hopes that he would scare away the townsfolk with this shaggy and unkempt sight. But then, he started to note the pitying look that folks gave him when their eyes darted to his face. It was there all along, right from the instant they set their sights on him, but the moment they looked at his wild hair and mismatched socks, that look in their eyes got worse.
Now, Forrest shaved his beard with the zeal of a mad man. And he made sure that from the moment he got up, he always looked presentable. No more wild hair and cracked glasses for him.
Breakfast was always eventful, what with Mrs. Tanner and her endless tales about the neighbors. She would always tell him about the latest happenings in town too. As though, an increase in the price of barley would cure him of his loneliness. And whenever she got a sly look in her eyes and Forrest just knew that she was about to tell him about a maiden – or a young widow, or anybody that she thought would catch his fancy.
“You should make some time to see Eliza sometime soon, dear,” Mrs. Tanner said with that look in her eyes.
“Why?” Forrest asked in spite of himself. Oh, he was fairly certain that it wouldn’t be anything serious, but Eliza Murphy was one of the very few friends he had left in town. He took it upon himself to look out for her whenever he could, because she had been Annabeth’s dearest friend, she had adopted two of his animals, and she had no family or husband look after her.
“She’s changed her hair,” Mrs. Tanner replied glibly. Forrest could see that she was excited too, as she went on about chops or bobs or whatever else it was that Eliza had done to herself this time. “You should see how well it sets off her face, dear. I think I might even try one of these styling techniques myself,” she said, touching her hand to her own hair, which was piled up neatly into a bun, and tried to explain the hairdo. “What do you think?”
Forrest nearly choked at the vision that came to his mind. He could very well imagine Mrs. Tanner with Eliza’s flaming red hair.
“I think you oughta do whatever pleases you with your own hair, Mrs. Tanner,” Forrest told her carefully, as he ran a finger along the rim of his coffee mug, thinking. A man should always approach these matters carefully. If he could manage dealing with Mrs. Tanner this time, it might be good practice for when a woman answered his ad for a mail-order bride. “I just wish you’d consider the neighbors, and how they might stare.”
Mrs. Tanner blinked at him. “You’ve never cared about the neighbors a day in your life, Forrest Neihart,” she accused with heavy suspicion, and a touch of humor.
There was a time Forrest would have agreed wholeheartedly with her, but that time had passed. When Annabeth was alive, he hadn’t had a single care in the world beyond how he might provide for her, and keep her happy. Even through the course of her disease, his entire focus had been centered on her. And after her demise, it was grief that consumed him.
Although he found his neighbors annoying at times, they were generally good folk. When tragedy had struck, they rallied round him. Even now, they were still showing him that they cared. He hadn’t quite expected it.
“Yeah, that’s the truth,” he went along with Mrs. Tanner’s thread of humor. “But you live near me, Mrs. Tanner. I’m your neighbor. And I’ll stare.”
Mrs. Tanner laughed.
It wasn’t his best attempt at humor, but Forrest thought he did alright. His skills at making a woman laugh were a little rusty. He only needed more practice.
Fisher barked excitedly when Forrest was ready to leave for his first call of the day. Some of MacDonnell’s cows were due for calving today, and Forrest was supposed to offer his medical expertise. He was taking Fisher along with him, since it wasn’t a long distance from his land to MacDonnell’s, and she hadn’t gotten her morning run. He thought the both of them could use the walk.
Forrest loved being outdoors. He always had, and not even grief had taken that away; although, there had been times he thought it would. The silence that lived with him didn’t feel so all-consuming when he was in the outdoors, and he was able to think much clearly because of it.
Forrest glanced towards the road and thought of the mail order ad he’d placed in the papers. He’d done it after much thought, but it still felt like a whim. Placing that ad had been out of character for him; so much so that he had kept it to himself. Eliza had been the one to suggest it to him, but he hadn’t told her yet. Hell, he hadn’t even informed Mrs. Tanner.
Forrest wasn’t exactly sure why he’d needed the privacy. He thought maybe had something to do with his grief and how it had woven itself into guilt.
“Do you think anyone will reply, Fish?” He glanced at the dog. Fisher spared him a curious look at the sound of her name, looking for a treat. Then, she looked away, uninterested in his empty hands. “No, right?” He’d only placed the ad after he heard Eliza mention how well it had worked for one of her neighbors. It was that and the fact that Forrest wanted to marry again, to rid himself of the loneliness, but he didn’t enjoy the idea of courting any of his neighbor’s daughters.
He’d been very clear about his circumstances in the ad, as well as the nature of his job. He was a vet in Odessa, and he worked closely with all types of farm animals. Most days, he returned to the house smelling of manure. Then, there was the matter of the urgent calls he got all hours of the day, being the only vet in the area; that and the occasional meager payments he received for his services. If all those things didn’t scare any sane woman away, then she was welcome to live with him. But he wasn’t so hopeful. The worst part was that some little piece of him was glad about his unfavorable chances.
“You’re the only one that doesn’t care about the way I live my life, Fish.” He bent to rub the top of her head. “No one else can stand the silence. Then, there’s the job. I love it, but honestly most women don’t.”
He adjusted his glasses and checked his pocket watch. “C’mon, Fisher! We’re running late.” Forrest didn’t like keeping his appointments waiting.
The next day was more of the same. He struggled to get up in the morning, like always. He listened to more of the same news that Mrs. Tanner liked to share with him at breakfast, and he even had to visit the same farm as not all of MacDonnell’s cows had calved the previous day.
A few had managed to put to birth yesterday, and one had the luck to go into labor in the middle of the night. Of course, they’d sent for him to see to that, and Forrest still had dark circles under his eyes. He was just about to leave for MacDonnell’s, but was still in the process of deciding whether he should take Fish with him today as well. Meanwhile, he was chugging down his second cup of coffee, and that was when he heard a knock on the door.
“I’m comin’!” he yelled, quickly getting up. Something must have happened to MacDonnell’s cows, and the man had come to collect him. Well, that would mean no running for Fisher, he thought regretfully.
“I’ll be right there!” Forrest shouted again as he hurried to get the door in long strides.
He got the wind knocked out of his sails when he swung the door open and, instead of any of MacDonnell’s farmhands, there was a pretty young woman standing there. He looked around and saw that she was alone.
Momentarily at a loss, Forrest asked the first thing that came to his mind, “Is your farm animal having a medical emergency?”
1870’s, Odessa, Texas
Mona stared at the tall man who had answered the door, struck by his features. He looked flustered, and, somewhat distractive right before his eyes focused on her. She noted his surprise at the unexpected sight of her, but his strange question made her laugh.
He appeared to be even more taken aback at the sound of her laughter, and she felt strongly that this man was the sort that liked to watch people. She saw it in the way he took in everything about her, from the plain clothes she wore to the bag clutched in her hand as if he was noting every single detail away for later. Mona was thrilled to notice this. It meant he would be a good listener; she could just tell. It did make her wonder, though very briefly, if he could somehow tell her condition. She quickly covered her belly with her bag, hoping to distract him just in case.
“No, I don’t have a farm animal with a medical emergency,” Mona told him with obvious amusement. “In fact, I don’t have a farm animal at all, though I’ve always wanted one. Actually, that’s not true,” she suddenly remembered. “We have a chicken – a hen, Bernice. She’s a layer but never really lays any eggs, because she’s very old and underfed. Poor Bernice! Now that I’ve left home, I hope she won’t starve to death,” Mona rasped nervously.
The man blinked at her in confusion. “Why would she starve to death?”
“Oh, that’s ‘cause I left home, and I’m the one that ever remembers to feed her. And sometimes, there’s not even enough food.”
“Why?” the man asked.
Mona stared at him.
“Why isn’t there enough food only sometimes?” he asked again, looking a little confused. He was probably wondering who she was and what she was doing at his door, but Mona wasn’t in a hurry to make any introductions.
For the first time in her life, Mona had the shockingly entertaining experience of having to inform someone about her situation instead of being the victim of gossip. She was no longer in Beaumont, where everybody knew that she was poor. “Well, that’s ‘cause we’re poor. Me and father, we’re very, very poor.” Mona suddenly paused. A reasonable part of her yelled that this was madness. She was standing at the doorstep of a complete stranger and she was intending to be his bride without letting him know of her condition. What would her mother think if she could somehow see what she had been reduced to? Mona bit her lip, yet she had no time to further think of what she was doing.
“Ah,” the tall man finally said, “I see.”
She took one long look at him, with his tall, wiry build, his bespectacled eyes and clothes that fit him well. He looked so put together, so clean and shiny, that she doubted that he had ever truly seen the depths of poverty that she had just described.
“The door’s still open,” Mona suddenly blurted.
“The door,” Mona said again, and he turned to close the door, looking as if it hadn’t occurred to him until Mona pointed it out. They were still at the threshold.
“Thank you, Miss…” he trailed off suggestively.
“Oh, that’s right!” she remembered that she hadn’t given him her name. “Mona. I’m Mona Whitson.” She stretched out her hand and smiled brightly. “I’m here looking for Forrest Neihart. He’s a veterinarian. I saw the ad he put in the paper for a mail-order bride – actually, it was my friend, Mary that saw it –”
“Is that right?” the man said, leaning against the door he had just closed. He looked like he was settling in for a story – she liked that about him too.
“Yes, that’s exactly right,” Mona responded warmly. “She thought I might be interested in the opportunity ‘cause…” She paused, wondering why it was so difficult to talk about this. She was unaware that everything she was feeling was clearly displayed on her face; the guilt, the pain and the mountain-like lump of sadness. And it was the same for her excitement.
“I think…I think we should continue this conversation inside,” the man suddenly said. “Come in, Miss. Whitson.”
“Forgive me, but I didn’t get your name, Mister…”
“Neihart,” he said without fuss. “Forrest Neihart. I’m the veterinarian.” A look of chagrin passed his face, as though he couldn’t believe what had just come out of his mouth. It was such a funny look that Mona almost laughed.
“I see,” she said, following him into the big house. She’d guessed as much. Something told Mona that this man was different from the other men she’d known in her old life.
The house was as beautiful on the inside as it was on the outside, and Mona saw signs of a feminine touch. It was in the flowers on the polished mantelpiece, the clean curtains, the fancy needlework on the furniture pieces, and the way all the surfaces gleamed.
This man had money, she could see. The simple things Forrest surrounded himself with seemed like luxuries when compared to her own upbringing.
“This is my housekeeper, Mrs. Tanner,” Forrest said, gesturing at an elderly woman, who looked more put together than him. Mona greeted her. “Mrs. Tanner, this is Mona Whitson.”
“Nice to meet you, dear,” Mrs. Tanner greeted warmly. Then she looked to Forrest with questions burning in her eyes.
“Mona is here ‘cause of an ad I put in the paper for a mail-order bride, Mrs. Tanner,” Forrest stated, answering the elderly woman’s silent questions. “I know it’s unexpected, but I’d like you to prepare a room for her, ‘cause she’ll be stayin’ with us for quite some time. Hopefully,” he added quickly.
Mona saw the exact moment Forrest’s words registered with Mrs. Tanner. The elderly woman suddenly got an odd look on her face; it was a look of pure shock.
“She’s your – did you say you put an ad in the paper?” she stuttered. “For a bride?!”
Forrest nodded and Mrs. Tanner seemed even more confused.
“You were telling me why your friend thought you’d be interested in answering the ad,” he said, drawing her full attention back to him.
“Well, that’s ‘cause I had a man. Nolan…” Mona let out a short, painful laugh, “…my father would have killed me if he found out about it. But I didn’t mind that, ‘cause I loved him a lot,” she paused, blinking away her tears. “But then, he said he didn’t want to be tied down…he didn’t want me anymore.”
When she really, really thought about it, Mona didn’t think Nolan ever did. She’d come to realize it during her long journey in the train, when she shared a cabin with a young, newly-wed couple who’d also been heading to Texas.
Though the couple had entertained Mona during the journey, what she found most memorable about them was how obviously they loved each other. The woman had looked at the man with stars in her eyes, and the man’s expression had softened every time he looked at her. She never had that with Nolan, Mona had thought that on the train and she thought so now. With them, love had always been one-sided. Sure, Nolan must have cared for her at some point, but Mona knew that it wasn’t the way she felt about him.
The man watched her in a serious sort of way; then he produced a neatly folded handkerchief from the pocket of his jeans.
“Here,” he passed it to her.
Mona was surprised to find a single tear running down her cheek. “Thank you,” she said as took the hanky, she gave a nervous laugh. “Silly me, wastin’ tears on Nolan McKevly.”
“I don’t think you’re silly at all,” the tall man said gently. The corner of his lips curved up a little. He looked like someone that had somehow forgotten how to smile, and now, he was being cautious with it.
He brought out his time piece and his eyes darted to her. “Mona, I’m really happy to see you, Mona. But I wasn’t expecting you – or anybody else – to be honest. I’ve an appointment right now. I was just about to leave for it when you showed up –”
“Is a farm animal havin’ a medical emergency?” Mona asked hastily. It was the first thing that came into her mind, and it was nearly the same question that he had first asked her.
“I’m afraid so,” Forrest replied with a small smile. It wasn’t much of a smile, as far as smiles went, but it was genuine.
In the very short moments that Mona had known him, she’d come to notice that the veterinarian never fully smiled. It was almost as if something was weighing heavily on his mind. Then again, she didn’t know him well yet.
Or it could be that he was worried about his patient, the farm animal that needed his medical expertise.
Mona briefly wondered what kind of animal it would be – probably a cow or pig. Or maybe a horse – excitement ran through her body at the thought. She’d always loved animals, but her family was just too poor to afford the upkeep of anything other than a single hen.
“Wait!” she said, before Forrest could start leaving. “I’ll only need a few moments to freshen up, an’ then, I’d like to join you if you don’t mind.”
“Join me?” Forrest was confused again. He adjusted his glasses and grey eyes peered at her from behind the clear lenses. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Mona couldn’t help her smile. Every time she spoke, she seemed to throw the veterinarian into a state of confusion, and she found it funny. She found him very charming, and she wondered what it would be like to watch him work with animals. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well…” Forrest corked his head to the side, and ran a hand through his hair. “It stinks.”
“What stinks?” she asked curiously.
“The cows,” he replied. He fixed her with another serious look. “What I’m goin’ there for ain’t exactly pleasant,” he warned. “There would be flies. Big, buzzing ones.”
“I don’t mind.” Mona shrugged. “Or do you mind having me there?” It was his job, after all.
Forrest gave her a squinty, suspicious look. Then, he turned to Mrs. Tanner in exasperation, as though he couldn’t figure her out and he had finally given up on it. “Please, explain it to her.”
Mrs. Tanner had been watching her and Forrest quietly, looking back and forth between them with deep interest.
“Well, dear.” The elderly woman peered at her now with assessing eyes. “Bringin’ a cow into the world is unpleasant work as Mr. Niehart has so delicately put it. But if you don’t mind it, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be allowed to watch. Or is there any other reason, dear?” She turned to Forrest.
“Well, no. But –”
“Then that’s settled,” Mrs. Tanner said charmingly. She turned to Mona. “Now, come with me, my dear. I’ll show you to your bedroom and you can freshen up there.”
Mona smiled at her and to her delight, Mrs. Tanner winked.
The elderly woman led her up the stairs, leaving a stunned Forrest behind. “Tell me, Miss. Whitson, is that really all the luggage you brought along with you, or is there more to be fetched at the station?”
“No, ma’am –”
“Oh no!” Mrs. Tanner laughed. “It’s Mrs. Tanner or Lydia, if you’d prefer.”
“Okay, Mrs. Tanner,” Mona amended. “It’s just this small bag. And I’ve got all my life’s belongings in here.”
Mrs. Tanner seemed to be impressed. “How efficient.”
In no time at all, and thanks to Mrs. Tanner’s help, Mona was fully ready.
“I usually walk over to MacDonnell’s,” Forrest told her as they left the house. “But I don’t know if you’d rather ride a horse.”
“I think we should better walk. I’ve never ridden before,” Mona confessed.
“Okay,” Forrest said, without asking her more about it. He checked his pocket watch again. He really was in a hurry.
“Maybe you should take a horse,” she suggested. “I’ll just go back inside and stop slowing you down –”
“No, it’s alright,” Forrest quickly interrupted, stopping her from returning to the house. “I like the walk. And I thought we could get to know each other better on our way there…” he trailed off, running his hand through his hair absentmindedly, and looking vulnerable all of a sudden.
He was nervous, Mona suddenly realized. Her sudden arrival had shaken this man more than he had let on. The only reason he had finally let on was that he didn’t want her to go back inside, and Mona found that terrifying for some reason, for a lot of reasons.
Throughout her journey, she had wondered about him. She’d wondered over and over what would have made him search for a bride that way. Now, Mona feared that there might be a lot more to Forrest Niehart than met the eye; a lot more depth to him than she had initially thought. The fear mingled with her own anxiety about what life had in store for her next, and she became aware of a new fear that just taken root. She could, in time, fall in love with Forrest Niehart.
“All right,” Mona said softly finally. “Lead the way.”
“The legs are coming out!” Mona exclaimed with excitement as he assisted MacDonnell’s cow with her baby She didn’t just watch too, she actually helped him in pulling out the young calf.
She watched in awe as the cow cleaned its young and the little calve learned to walk on all fours for the first time; she was tearing up the whole time, using the sleeves of her dress to wipe away her tears, since she’d left his hanky back in the house.
“It’s just so beautiful,” she said when she caught him staring, but Forrest thought it might be more than that.
Forrest had absolutely no idea what to make of the new woman who’d just inserted herself into his life. Mona Whitson wasn’t anything like he’d expected her to be, and she was turning out to be everything he could have ever asked for. Not only did she love animals, but she didn’t mind getting her hands dirty because of them.
She was beautiful. Straight hair and big round eyes. A little too thin but this could be fixed. Yes, Forrest though, she was beautiful, not only in appearance but in how she behaved. As a matter of fact, it was her cheerfulness that drew him in. Forrest had always thought that he’d be better off with someone as serious as him, but Mona’s attitude seemed to be the exact opposite of that, and he found himself liking it.
He noticed her touching her stomach a few times, and it suddenly occurred to him. “Have you had something to eat today, Mona?”
“Yes,” she said with a small smile. “Yes, I have had something to eat, Forrest. Several somethings, actually,” she added the last part as a mumble. But he’d heard her clearly. It appeared that his newly acquired intended also had a hearty appetite. Forrest was thoroughly impressed.
Still, it didn’t take away any of his embarrassment over the fact that he hadn’t bothered offering her something to eat before taking her on this adventure.
As soon as they were done at the MacDonnell’s ranch, Forrest led her back to his house.
“This isn’t the way we came,” Mona observed, and Forrest nodded in reply. He liked how she’d noticed the change. There were many people who didn’t pay enough attention when they were outdoors, and several women wouldn’t have noticed the difference. The silence in that moment, right then in those parts of the woods, was the best sort of silence that Forrest had experienced in a long time. It soothed his soul.
“I like this path better,” he admitted to her. “I used to come ‘ere a lot when I was a boy. I grew up right ‘ere in these woods. I set traps, played games and fished.”
“You fished here?” Mona asked in confusion. “Where?”
He pointed to the narrow trail on their left. “If you follow that trail right there, and you keep goin’ straight, it’ll lead you to a little lake. It’s more of a pond, actually, but if you’re really patient, you can catch something real good.” He hesitated, then continued, “I’ll show it to you someday.”
Forrest ran his hand over the back of his neck, telling himself not to feel so nervous. So, it’d been a while since he’d made plans with a woman; he wasn’t going to keel over just because he’d started now.
“I’d like that,” he heard her say in that lovely voice of hers. “I’ve always wanted to go fishing.” When she smiled at him, Forrest could have sworn that he saw stars. There was something about those green eyes that drew him in with the force of the most powerful magnet. It was her vibrancy and that powerful personality she had. Mona Whitson was colors and light, while he felt like a bleached-out photograph. Perhaps Annabeth had sent her to him, to brighten up his life, he thought briefly. Then, he put the thoughts away for later.
“If you set traps and went fishing so much as a boy, how did you become a veterinarian?” Mona asked.
Forrest smiled as he considered the question, “If you’d known me back then, when I was much younger, you wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I always returned more than half of whatever I caught…except the fishes. I didn’t even like the taste of wild game. As soon as my traps caught something, I’d check it out, study it a little and then, I’d let it go. It drove my father mad, but in the end, I think he was always proud of me.”
“You were close to your father,” Mona said.
It wasn’t a question but Forrest nodded anyway. “It nearly killed me when he died. Him and my mama both.”
“I’m so sorry.” There was an odd quality to her voice, and more than a little sadness in her eyes. It would have been easy to assume that the sadness was on his behalf, but Forrest knew better. He’d gone through enough pain not to know the signs.
“What ‘bout your father?” he asked.
Mona sighed. “My father…” she trailed off, apparently at a loss for what to say.
“From what you told me earlier,” he referred to the tale she’d told him on his doorsteps, “I take it that he’s a little’ strict with you.”
Mona laughed soon as she heard his words, but Forrest didn’t think this one was a particularly happy laugh.
“Were you close to him as a child?” he prompted.
Her mouth curved into a sad smile. “No. Never. I was closer to my mama. But she passed on a few years back.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
“It’s okay,” she said cheerfully, but somehow, Forrest sensed that this was far from the truth. Suddenly, Mona let out a gasp. “Oh, look…so many pretty flowers! Bluebonnets, giant spiderworts…oh, look they’re buttercups!”
They’d come to the meadow, Forrest’s favorite spot in these woods.
When they finally got back to the house, Forrest made sure that Mrs. Tanner brought out a feast of peach cobbler, Country Captain, collard greens and sweet tea for lunchtime. He watched Mona eat with amusement. She didn’t take dainty little bites like many of the women he’d been forced to share meals with over the years – neighbors’ daughters, acquaintances and young widows, who’d managed to give themselves a false sense of hope where he was concerned.
No, Mona didn’t eat like them. She ate like she’d been starving for weeks…and then, it occurred to Forrest that maybe she had. But he vividly recalled her comment at the MacDonnell’s ranch, about having eaten already. Maybe that was just her nature, Forrest concluded.
He spent the rest of the day in her company, with Mrs. Tanner’s occasional presence, and when it was time for them to separate for the night, something strange happened. For the first time in a long while, Forrest looked forward to the next morning. More precisely, he looked forward to seeing Mona the next morning.
However, loneliness didn’t let go that easily. Forrest slept well enough but his dreams belonged to restless nights. In his dreams, he saw himself in the meadow with Mona, but there were flashes of Annabeth, and he kept catching glimpses of his late wife in the corners of whatever fabric dreams were made of.
When he woke up, Forrest still had trouble leaving his bed. It wasn’t as though he couldn’t move his body, he just didn’t have any inclination to do it. His morning melancholy had taken hold, and there was nothing to do about it.
Even when Forrest heard Mona’s voice – it floated into his room from the kitchen downstairs, if he had to guess – he still didn’t feel like getting up. However, an unfamiliar warmth gradually bloomed in his heart, and it chased off some of the loneliness.
When he finally made it downstairs, though, Forrest didn’t know what to think about the new development. Mona and Mrs. Tanner were seated at the table, chatting away and already having their breakfast. Nobody had waited for him. Forrest couldn’t recall the last time that had happened.
“You started breakfast without me,” he announced dispassionately as he took his seat at the head of the table.
“We came up to call you, dear,” Mrs. Tanner answered. “Twice, in fact.”
“You must sleep very deeply, Forrest,” Mona said. “Even Fisher had called for you along with us.” He’d introduced Mona to the German shepherd and it turned out that her charm also worked on dogs.
At her words, Mrs. Tanner suddenly got very interested in the dining tablecloth. And Forrest couldn’t manage to hold Mona’s gaze anymore. He didn’t know how to begin to tell her that he hadn’t been sleeping. He hadn’t even been ignoring them, not really. It was just that, sometimes, he was so disconnected from reality that he didn’t seem to know what was happening around him. He was fully aware, but there was just no will for him to care. The dreams of Annabeth had brought it on that morning.
His chin felt tender, again. Normally, Forrest didn’t mind it but his emotional discomfort seemed to heighten all his senses; and he was much more sensitive to the tenderness in chin, as well as the sight of Mona that morning.
She looked so pretty sitting there in her green dress, Forrest noted. It was the exact color of her eyes and he thought it suited her.
He ate his breakfast in silence, listening to Mona and Mrs. Tanner’s discussion.
“Forrest?” Mona called when he was about to leave the table so that he could get ready for work.
“Can I come to work with you today?” she asked imploringly. “You see, I enjoyed it so much yesterday.”
“It isn’t all fun and games, Mona,” Forrest told her. “Sometimes, farm animals die and it can get really sad.”
“I don’t mind,” she said. It was the same thing she said the previous day and she’d been able to handle it, so this time there was no need for Mrs. Tanner to bend Forrest’s arm, he believed her. And even though they’d only just met the previous day, Forrest already felt that he could trust Mona. Despite her naïveté, there was just something magnetic and charming about Mona, he felt certain that if she even made any mistakes, she wouldn’t make them on purpose or out of carelessness. He could see that she genuinely cared for farm animals, and she was eager to learn. In all honesty, he thought, Mona had managed to surprise him with all this. He was even more surprised that she volunteered to join him today as well.
He was thrilled, as well, and he didn’t want their paths to part just yet.
Forrest wasn’t going to MacDonnell’s today, and thankfully, he had no critical calls to make, no births or deaths or emergencies—for the moment. The only thing on his schedule for the day was a routine examination of a new calf just outside town.
It took some time but soon Forrest was ready. He had taken extra care with his dressing today because it was the first time, he would be going into town along with Mona. Their adventure at their MacDonnell’s ranch had meant a lot to him, and hopefully to her as well, but the fact remained that MacDonnell’s was his closest neighbor; his land was only a stone throw away from his own property, and there had been no questions or judgment there.
Of course, he wasn’t expecting any consternation from the townsfolk towards Mona, but he wanted to look presentable just in case he ran into any of his less savory neighbors. It was his responsibility to protect Mona’s reputation from any untoward speculation, and Forrest Neihart prided himself over the fact that he didn’t run away from his responsibilities.
As soon as he finished dressing, Forrest went outside to prepare the wagon. It took him several minutes to set everything in place on his own. But by the time he was done, she still hadn’t come downstairs.
“Mona!” he called out. “We’re going to be late!”
“Comin’!” she yelled back from her room upstairs. “Just gimme a moment!”
Forrest shook his head and headed into the carriage to wait for her. He absolutely abhorred lateness. So, why then did he have a stupid grin on his face? And just why, he asked himself, did he feel so happy to have a woman to wait on?
A woman worth waiting on, a voice in his head whispered.
At this point, his commonsense just couldn’t take it anymore. He was pissed at himself for falling so easily, for a woman he’d only just met. No, he hadn’t fallen for her, his commonsense corrected. He only liked her. It was too soon to be laying the broken pieces of his heart down at anybody’s feet.
But when Mona stepped out the front door, all those thoughts flew out of Forrest’s mind. She looked so beautiful, he thought. She was still wearing her green dress, but her air was different. There was a flush on her cheeks, and Forrest wondered if she was as nervous as him.
And what was it about her beauty that took him aback every single time?
All right, his commonsense finally ruled over Forrest’s mind and body. All right, he admitted, he liked Mona a whole lot. In fact, he was falling for her. And what was the most important of all, Annabeth’s face would smile when she would visit his dreams, as if encouraging him to move on.
Mona might just be exactly what was missing from his life: not excitement, he had plenty of that, dealing with animals every day and whatnot. All these days that he’d been wasting away to loneliness, when what he’d truly been missing was a woman to bring life into his home with her presence. A woman like Mona. But his face didn’t give anything he was thinking away.
“Tell me ‘bout yourself, Mona,” he said in his serious tone. But he’d done it in a conversational tone so that she wouldn’t have cause to worry. It was just that she was important to him now, and Forrest wanted to know everything about her.
“I already said all there is to know ‘bout me yesterday,” she said.
“Tell me again,” Forrest said.
Mona didn’t ask him any questions, she only obliged him, giving him exactly what he needed right then and there.
“I’m twenty-three years old, I’m from Beaumont, Louisiana where I lived in a tiny house with my father. I have a best friend – the very best of best friends – and her name is Mary. Mary Birchfield. She’s like a sister to me, and her family is so kind. They gave me a job when they could barely afford to pay me, just so I’d have some savings…” she went on and on, and Forrest enjoyed listening to every word, and just hearing the sound of her voice.
“Tell me about your dreams,” Forrest said later. “What did you always want to be?” He was genuinely curious because just the previous day, he’d poured out his soul and shared personal stories that had nudged him into doing what he now loved. He’d heard Mona say many things about herself, but those things were centered on the people in her life who they were to her, and not who they wanted to be.
He was pleased to see that his question had put a smile on her face. “All right, I’ll tell you,” she said. “Since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be like my mother. I wanted to be a homemaker. She would cook and clean the house and take care of me and my father, and she always looked so happy when she was doing it. It gave her joy. To her, chores were never just chores. I want to be like her, but it’s not easy.
“It’s not always easy to find joy in making other people happy. And how can you make others happy when you don’t have happiness yourself?”
The question struck a chord in Forrest’s soul and they continued to talk on the way to the ranch. When they arrived there, Mona stayed close to him while he examined the calf. She proved to be a surprisingly adept listener; one who was eager to learn everything she could about animals. Truly, putting that ad in the paper was the luckiest thing that Forrest had done in years.